Persian Nights… Iranian Days

| December 28, 2015

Iran has a fantastically rich and varied history, with a dramatic cultural heritage. Travel journalist Nick Borthwick reports.

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Shimmering in the desert light, a two-square kilometre maze of avenues, alleys, homes and a Zoroastrian fire temple is made entirely of mud brick and is crowned by the battlements of a citadel

"If men had to wear these things, they'd be outlawed tomorrow," sighs a woman who's dressed in a full-length black chador. We're in a cool vault in Iran's National Jewellery Museum, but the perspiration on her brow tells that it's more than warm inside her modesty marquee.

We peer into a display cabinet, at the crown of Iran's last Empress. Its centrepiece blazes back, an emerald the size of a tail-light. The walls around flicker with refractions from the gem-encrusted trove that is the Iranian Crown Jewels.

These toys of Croesus are an astonishing swag of thrones, pendants, necklaces, scimitars, scabbards and tiaras that make the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London look like baubles from a cut-rate kingdom. Which is how Persia's 17th century Safavid emperors like Shah Abbas the Great viewed Europe's little side-show monarchies.

An increasing number of tourists (mostly Japanese, Europeans and Americans) are rediscovering the fascinations of Iran, although the annual total of visitors is still small. Tourism more or less disappeared when the 1979 people's revolution ousted the Shah and permitted Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullahs to rule. A long slump in oil prices, 17 percent inflation and unemployment of at least nine percent has handicapped Iran's economy. In need of cash, its theocrats are toying with the old Faustian bargain: risking a little cultural contamination in exchange for tourist lucre.

"You son-of-witch!" cackles our taxi driver as we career through the streets of magnificent Isfahan. "Go for it!" He's gesticulating at other cars, but mostly trying to assure us that vernacular English (of sorts) is fondly remembered by some people. Each day we encounter similar sentiments, though rarely expressed in such eccentric mode. Despite the programme of mutual demonising that the West and Iran have conducted over almost two decades, during my week in Iran almost no one treats me like one of the Great Satan's lesser pitchforks. On the contrary, ordinary Iranians are unfailingly courteous, eager for us to enjoy their country's sights, cuisine and friendships.

Tehran is gritty and too big, a city of some 13 million people. The snow-capped, 5000-metre Alborz Mountains overlook the capital's block-house architecture and its deltas of traffic awash with seemingly rudderless cars. The National Carpet Museum (near the Hotel Laleh, née InterContintental) is a temple of the weaver's art, a cornucopia of story-telling rugs whose depths embody the decorative genius of regions like Tabriz, Kerman, Qum and Kurdestan. These 135 masterpieces make my finest rug at home look like linoleum.

On the forested slopes of the mountains above town is the Green Palace, used by the last Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for receptions and, it is said, love trysts. Its chandeliers drip like crystal stalactites; the walls are tiled with thousands of mirrors. Here is the high tide mark of the old regime's Francophilia. Meant to resemble a Persian Versailles, in reality its effect is more akin to being trapped inside a giant cut-glass decanter. Ten minutes in this palace of hallucinations suggests the real reason for the 1979 revolution: it was an aesthetic, not religious revolt.

Kerman, 1000 km southwest of Tehran, is the gateway to an extraordinary ghost city, Bam, that's little known beyond Iran. Shimmering in the desert light, a two-square kilometre maze of avenues, alleys, homes and a Zoroastrian fire temple is made entirely of mud brick and is crowned by the battlements of a citadel. Although it looks much like a Crusader fortress, the Arg e Bam citadel has no connection with that era. Indeed, Bam's origins - thought to date back some 2,000 years - are lost in the dust of unwritten history.

The last empress, Farah Dibah, allocated resources to preserve Bam; consequently the incoming Islamic Cultural Revolutionaries targeted her project for destruction. A schoolteacher from Kerman who stood in the path of the zealots' bulldozer - like the man with the shopping bag who halted the Tiannanmen Square tank column - is credited with preventing its demolition. We spend several serene hours wandering Bam's deserted bazaars, hearing little but the chattering of birds and the calls of the craftsmen restoring the citadel. No tour groups, no T-shirt wallahs - just one's own scrambled Scheherezade of Persian tales, peopled by everyone from Khayyam and Rumi to Sassanians, Seljuks and Assassins.

Successive Iranian Presidents have called in recent years for social liberalisation and even cultural exchanges with the United States. However, the last say in national policy comes from the "mullocracy" - the Guardian Council and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - which shows no signs yet of relaxing its absolute authority. The mandatory images of Mohammed Reza Shah and his son have long been replaced by equally ubiquitous ones of the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. The venal Reza Gang certainly had to go - but whenever, and wherever, I see a rotation of dynastic portraits, I can't stop the addled jukebox of my mind from humming that cautionary old line (from The Who's Don't Get Fooled Again) about, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."

Nevertheless, foreign tourists can wander freely through Iran's great cultural centres, the heartlands of classical Persia. The southern town of Shiraz (900 km from Tehran) was the 12th century literary capital of Persia and is still celebrated not only for Farsi poets like Hafez and Sa'di, but also for silver filigree, silk rugs and (until 1979) its famous wine.

Today, Shiraz (population: 1.5 million) is the capital of a rich agricultural province. Beyond the town, dense groves of fig, pomegranate and almond trees leaven the scenery. With a topography that ranges from snow-topped peaks to pastel desert plains, driving through Iran's countryside is a lyrical excursion. At times we can see, far beyond the dark tents of the nomad herders, up-thrust ranges whose wildly convoluted folds resemble a stack of, well, Persian carpets.

Shiraz's star attraction is Persepolis ("city of the Persians"), one of the world's great archaeological sites. Intended by the Achaemenid emperor Darius I (who ruled 521-486 B.C.) to be his grand capital, Persepolis was torched by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. before it was even completed.

Stone staircases, terraces, fire temples and pavilions covering 12 hectares are evidence of the Achaemenians' achievements. The empire's satrapies stretched from the Indus to the Aegean, and delicate reliefs on the walls of the Apadana Palace depict Libyans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Turks and others bearing tributes to Darius. Less delicate is the prominent graffiti carved on a plinth: "Stanley. New York Herald. 1870". Henry Morton Stanley, I presume; the journalist-explorer who, one year after tagging this 2,500-year-old glory, waxed far more immortal in Africa with the simple words, "Dr Livingstone, I presume."

Iran isn't, of course, just grand edifices and arbitrary edicts (ankles, booze and playing cards are out; chess is OK again). Its people (60 million) range from urban technocrats to traditional Bakhtiari and Baluchi nomads. While shopping in the bazaars, over rich brews in coffee shops, and at all those grand monuments, we encounter them - articulate strangers, exuberant school kids, proud parents and moderate clerics. If there is a nation today whose private face is at dramatic variance with its public projection, it is Iran.

Isfahan, Iran's second largest city, is half an hour's flight from Tehran. This capital of the 17th century Safavid dynasty can keep a visitor in awe for days. One of its most picturesque structures is the Khaju or "Wooden Bridge" (that's actually made of brick), stretching 130 metres across the Zayandeh River. With multiple functions - dam, roadway and royal pavilion - the two-storey covered bridge and its archways look almost Florentine. A tea-house tucked under it is described curiously in my guidebook as a place, "to sit and drink tea or smoke the hubble-bubble, surrounded by slumbering Isfahan manhood."

We briefly visit the ornate Vank Cathedral, where Christian Armenians have worshipped since 1660. But it's not the crucifixes, gilded icons and altars that stop me in my tracks. Several girls here have dropped their headscarves and, after less than a week in Iran, I find myself surprised by the sight of their lustrous, supposedly lust-inducing tresses. Equally shocking is the vision of men and women worshipping un-segregated.

Our guide, Sassan, keeps Isfahan's best until last, the grand Imam Square. Half a kilometre long and 165 metres wide, it's twice as large as Moscow's Red Square. This grand maidan (built by Shah Abbas in 1612) is hemmed by arcades, a caravanserai, palaces and, most importantly, a pair of mosques whose domes and walls, covered in millions of blue faience tiles, seem like enormous amethyst crystals. Unesco has rightly designated the area as "a masterpiece of the human hand." The central quadrangle was originally a polo field, which the Shah and his court could view from the adjacent Ali Qapu palace; the hefty stone bollards at one end are in fact polo goal posts.

Dominating the square is the sumptuous dome and portal of Imam Mosque. It's as thrilling a structure as any on earth, including the Taj Mahal. First, it eases your eye across its vast courtyard spaces, then draws your vision upwards to its interior heights. Thirty-eight metres above you, the dome's blue ceiling might well be Heaven tiled. Stand below its apex and clap softly once - seven echoes return in a volley of thunderclaps.

The turquoise and yellow calligraphies within the smaller Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque on the eastern side of Imam Square constitute yet another act of adoration in mosaics. This exquisite mosque, 18 years in the building, was named to honour a 17th century cleric whom my guidebook, in its inimitable way, describes as, "a sort of Islamic Billy Graham of his time."

In a nearby tourist bazaar, I thumb through postcard portraits of the country's rulers - yesterday's sultans, today's imams - and recall a wise verse by perhaps the most enduring Persian ever, Omar Khayyam: "Think, in this battered caravanserai / Whose doorways are alternate night and day, / How sultan after sultan with his pomp / Abode his hour or two, and went his way."

View Cox & Kings' tours to Iran >

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This article was first published in 2008.

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